Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review - The Martian Way and Other Stories by Isaac Asimov

Stories included:
The Martian Way
The Deep
Sucker Bait

In four short stories
Humans meet with aliens
Martians find water

Full review: The Martian Way and Other Stories consists of four short works by Isaac Asimov. There is no overarching theme to this book, although one could draw connections and describe this book as really consisting of two pairs of thematically similar stories. The first pair, consisting of The Martian Way and Sucker Bait are basically engineering science fiction in which intrepid explorers must think outside the box to ensure their survival and the survival of those around them. The other two stories - Youth and The Deep - are alien contact stories, both of which have a Twilight Zone style twist ending.

The Martian Way is the first story in the volume, and it is also the best. A substantial chunk of the high rating for this book is based solely on this story. I must confess that long ago this was the first science fiction story that I really thought presented a plausible future, which was a real eye-opener for me. Despite being nearly sixty years old now, the story still seems quite plausible, and I suspect if we had put our minds to it we could be living in a reality very similar to the fictional setting presented by Asimov. In fact, despite the clumsy and heavy handed addition of a McCarthyesque villain and some minor scientific flaws involving the make up of the rings of Saturn, the story seems to me to point out why sending humans out to Mars and beyond would be incredibly lucrative and open up the true wealth that is out there to humanity. Sadly, sixty years on, and despite the fact that there isn't any technology in the story that could not have been plausibly made in the 1950s, we are no closer to realizing the world depicted now than we were then.

Sucker Bait, the other "explorers think outside the box to save their skins" story, is competent and readable, but far less compelling. The story mostly amounts to a rant about how experts have walled themselves into their own limited fields of knowledge and how this is limiting and potentially dangerous. The theme of this story, positing the benefits of having generalists in a world of experts, is touched on elsewhere in Asimov's fiction in stories like Profession and in the works of other authors, making up one of the themes in John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar. This story is an adequate example of a story built on that theme, but not much more.

Of the two alien contact stories, Youth is the weaker. The story follows a farm boy and his city friend who stumble across an unknown organism and try to keep it as a pet with the intention of using it as a way to gain employment with the circus. Over the course of the story it is revealed that the organism is actually an alien and that the "city friend" is visiting the country with his father specifically so his father can make contact with these aliens. The story rambles along as the boys try to hide their discovery from their parents, certain that they will disapprove of any pet, and the adults try to figure out why the aliens they expected to meet have apparently not shown up. The story ends with a "twist" ending that is pretty much telegraphed to the reader and should surprise nobody, although it seems obvious that Asimov thought that it was terribly clever. The twist ending alone downgrades the story to being marginal at best, but up to that point it is decent.

The second alien contact story is The Deep and is told from the perspective of a race of insect like telepathic subterranean dwelling aliens living on a dying planet. Despite the fact that Asimov rarely wrote about aliens in his fiction, this work makes clear that he had no trouble creating truly alien beings. The story itself is something of a subversion of the typical alien invasion story, because despite the fact that the aliens want to move from their dying planet to Earth, they are shown to be so truly alien that it is possible that humanity would never know they had arrived. Although this story does not get much attention, it is one of Asimov's better works, and along with The Martian Way it makes this collection well worth reading.

With one stellar story, one above average story, and two mediocre ones, this collection is certainly worth reading. Despite the fact that all of the stories in this volume are now well over fifty years old, they have all aged reasonably well. Reasonably well in all but one aspect, and that relates to women: Asimov's lack of skill in handling female characters is compounded by conventional 1950s social mores resulting in very few female characters, and the ones who are presented are almost ridiculous caricatures. Despite this failing the stories remain quite forward-looking in all other respects, making this is a very good collection that most science fiction fans will still enjoy despite its age.

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